SOFIA (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to drum up EU pressure on North Korea on Sunday (Jan 14) in Sofia, while pledging to boost economic cooperation with Bulgaria and the Balkans.
"During today's talks we discussed the constantly worsening security situation in Eastern Asia and we were unanimous with Premier Boyko Borisov about the importance of close cooperation on the North Korea issue," Abe said.
He met with his Bulgarian counterpart Borisov as the country takes on the rotating EU presidency for the next six months.
"We categorically condemn the behaviour of North Korea with their firing of ballistic missiles and nuclear programme," Borisov said, but added that "all problems must be solved in a peaceful way, on the negotiations table."
Despite a recent cooling of tensions with Pyongyang, Abe has used his six-country trip to the Baltics and the Balkans to again hammer home his hawkish message that North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes pose a global threat.
The Japanese PM also pressed "for a quick solution" to the problem of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970 and 1980s - an issue that has been a keystone of his political career.
Progress on the problem has largely stalled since five of the 13 abducted returned home in 2002 and Abe's statement signalled that he would seek to rekindle EU support towards reaching a solution.
Speed up negotiations
A delegation of over 30 business leaders from Japan accompanied Abe on his trip to Sofia, where he agreed to set up an annual business forum to facilitate Japanese investment in the region, as well as a wider economic initiative with the Balkans.
Electronics, automobile construction, tourism, culture and agriculture were mentioned by Borisov as potential sectors of cooperation.
Bulgaria also promised to speed up the ratification of an EU-Japan free trade deal signed last year that would boost investment and trade.
"We will put our whole will and assiduousness during our EU Presidency term to speed up to the maximum the process of concluding the negotiations (on the economic deal) between the European Union and Japan because this is extremely important for Bulgarian business also," Borisov said.
Japan is keen to catch up as China bolsters its ties with Europe by pushing forward with its massive US$1 trillion "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which seeks to build rail, maritime and road links from Asia to Europe and Africa.
In 2018, Bulgaria will host a 16+1 economic summit of Central and Eastern Europe and China.
Abe will pay a courtesy call to Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on Monday before departing for Serbia and Romania, the last two stops of his trip.